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Planes are struck by lightning more often than you’d think -- here’s how they handle it

Fiery Pan Am Flight 214 crash claimed 81 lives

File photo: Plane flies near lightning.
File photo: Plane flies near lightning. (WKMG)

Lightning strikes commercial aircraft on average once every 1,000 flight hours. A shocking statistic but luckily the aircraft can usually handle it.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for Pan Am Flight 214 on Dec. 8, 1963.

The flight had just flown from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Baltimore and was to finish the last leg to Philly with 73 passenger and 8 crew on board.

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July in Central Florida is hot, humid, stormy, and the most active month for lightning deaths.
July in Central Florida is hot, humid, stormy, and the most active month for lightning deaths. (pixabay.com)

There was a cold front moving into Philadelphia with thunderstorm and lightning potential in the flight path. According to the aircraft accident report by the Civil Aeronautics Board, the aircraft was in a holding pattern when it was struck by lightning. The plane caught fire and a large portion of the left wing was separated as the plane went down.

Aircraft accident report for Pan Am Flight 214 taken by the Civil Aeronautics Board. Aircraft was struck by lightning. Crashed and killed all 81 people on the flight to Philadelphia.
Aircraft accident report for Pan Am Flight 214 taken by the Civil Aeronautics Board. Aircraft was struck by lightning. Crashed and killed all 81 people on the flight to Philadelphia. (Civil Aeronautics Board)

The captain was able to send a mayday call and the final transmission stated “Clipper 214 is going down in flames.” The aircraft exploded on impact, killing all 81 people on the flight near Elkton, Maryland.

An aircraft accident due to lightning is a rare event despite how many times one plane can be struck. Lightning usually strikes an aircraft on a sharp edge like the wing, nose or antennas. The electricity then flows through the wiring and exits the tail of the plane. Basically, the exterior is like a shell that protects the elements inside, including people.

The lightning strike can mess up electronics on board, including flight equipment, but that’s when a pilot’s training comes into play. They can fly the plane without all the modern technology in the event of an emergency.

Now, most electronic equipment and fuel tanks are grounded to prevent formation of high-density electric current between two separated conductors in a gas, which are known as electrical arcs.

A stray arc could cause an explosion if it was to ignite vapors in the fuel tank.

Commercial aircraft now have static discharge wicks installed as part of safety prevention measures issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. The wicks remove the electrical charge and put it back in the surrounding air, allowing for navigation and communication on the aircraft to continue.


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